Not that anyone seems to be reading the site much anymore, but I thought I'd document my latest home technology project, as I have done on a couple of previous projects. I think I'm done with it, finally.
I've had a dedicated file server/download box for several years now, but it was getting old, and the RAID-5 configuration was kind of small for a modern system - 4 250GB drives for a total of 750GB (1 drive sacrificed for redundancy). Plus, the CPU was very old and slow, and since I've started using TiVo Desktop Plus to transfer and transcode video to/from the TiVos and my computers/iPhone, a slow CPU becomes very noticeable. (Incidentally, I recently learned by accident that it will handle hi-def MKV files as well! Yay!)
Anyway, I'd been limping along with this thing for a while, until I had some issues a couple of weeks ago. First, the machine mysteriously rebooted itself a couple of times, and then a drive in my RAID array failed. This has happened twice before over the years, and the nice thing about RAID-5 is that if one drive fails, you can still use your files, albeit slowly. You can even use them after you plug a new replacement drive in as it rebuilds the array (which takes many hours, usually).
So this was the catalyst for me to rebuild the box. I already had a good computer case, but everything else was to be replaced:
This is actually what it currently looks like after the rebuild (a mess, I know, I'll clean it up later). But the point is that the enclosure on the bottom right side of the picture is where the four drives in the RAID array went. They were all packed in there like sardines, less than an inch apart. This, incidentally, was undoubtedly the cause of my 3 drive failures over the years: it's just too hot in there! But I get ahead of myself - more on that later.
So I went off to the local Tiger Direct/CompUSA after work with a parts list, and since it's actually just the wherehouse with a tiny storefront, if an item is in stock online, it's in stock in the store. So I fired up the following:
- 4GB PC6400 DDR2 RAM
- 5 Hitatchi 1TB Hard drives (4 for the new RAID array, 1 to back up the existing array). I would have gotten 1.5TB drives instead but these drives were much more inexpensive on a byte/dollar basis at $79 per drive.
- 1 Seagate 250GB drive (boot drive)
- Intel Core Duo E7400 (2.8Ghz)
- EVGA nForce 730i Motherboard (8 SATA ports and onboard video being the selling points for me)
- Thermaltake BlacX - I love this thing - it's a hard drive dock! So much better than messing with external enclosures!
Before I could build the new PC I had to back up the old array. Remember, it only has 3 out of the 4 drives functioning, so it's running slow. Very slow. Hence, it took almost an entire day to copy about 700GB worth of files. Ugh!
Once that was done, I built the new machine in my basement's work area and installed Windows 2008 Server:
Kind of feels like the Batcave, doesn't it? Lucky for me the guy who owned the house before me built this. I hadn't used it before, but it's a great workspace. The only thing it's missing is network connectivity.
Once the new machine was up and running, I created the new 3TB array, which took about 20 hours to fully "sync". Why it takes that long to configure an array with nothing in it, I'll never know (I'll stay willfully ignorant if I have to). Once that was finished, I copied back over the contents of the old array to the new one (though now I had a couple of free terabytes to play with!) and started getting the old software reinstalled - µTorrent, TiVo Desktop, Firefox, etc.
The first problem came when I started transferring downloaded files to my TiVos - I got mysterious shutdowns on the new fileserver. This was just as bad as before, no, make that worse, because I just shelled out a pile of cash for new hardware and it still wasn't behaving properly! My first thought as to what was causing the shutdowns was that it was the power supply, since besides the case (which doesn't affect the behavior of the computer beyond air-flow issues), it was the only thing I didn't replace. And I did have some problems with mysterious reboots before, which is part of what prompted this whole exercise. So I was off to CompUSA again for a new power supply.
Well, as you can guess, that wasn't the problem. Subsequent attempts to transcode files for my TiVo resulted in shutdowns as well. So it became more clear that the CPU was overheating, and upon reading the CPU temperature, it was clearly getting way too hot.
So, I shut 'er down and examined the CPU heatsink and fan, and sure enough, I failed to secure the cooling kit properly to the chip. I had never used a Socket 775 motherboard before, and each spec seems to have its own way of mounting a heatsink. I clearly didn't know how to use this one correctly. After figuring it out, for good measure, I got some shiny new thermal grease to slather on top of the chip.
That definitely solved my shutdown issues, and I'm embarassed to admit such a rookie mistake at this point in my PC-building career (worse yet, it's not the first time I've made that particular mistake). And even though I didn't need that fancy new power supply, I kept it, because... well... it's fancy. For a power supply.
So now that I was so heat conscious, I decided to install some hard disk monitoring software, to see if all of my previous disk woes were due to heat as well. Sure enough, the disks in my array were running close to the warning threshhold:
Turns out that not only was that small enclosure near the bottom of the case a problem, but because of my big 'ol power supply, I had had to remove the only fan at the bottom of the case to make everything fit, thus probably making even hotter than before!
Well, I'd be damned if I was going to let my new investment slowly cook itself to death like my previous one did, so I went back to CompUSA again and got a few of these:
They attach on the underside of the hard drive, kind of like a heatsink/fan for a CPU. But since they add size to the drive, I could no longer keep them all in the 4-drive chassis that I had them in before, which is definitely for the best anyway. Instead, I kept two in that chassis, put one in the middle section of the case, and one up in the area where the 5.25" drives (CD/DVD drives, usually) go.
This worked beautifully until I noticed that one of the drives started spiking in temperature again. I went into the server closet to check it out and as soon as I opened the door I heard a loud racket in the form of one of those fans attached to one of the drives in the 4-bay chassis going haywire. I disconnected everything and pulled the drive out - sure enough, the fan was cracked almost in half! WTF? I looked at the other one in the chassis, and its fan was similarly cracked but still functional for the moment.
I superglued the offending fan back together, and after waiting a day for it to dry, put it back in. Temperature okay. But then of course, the other fan with a crack stopped spinning altogether, and its temp started going up again! I went back to CompUSA for probably the fourth time now and got a different kind of hard drive cooler, one that mounts in its own bay. I slapped that between the two drives in the 4 bay chassis, and things have been running well ever since:
The blue vertical line at July 10 represents where I last tampered with cooling solutions. The spike in the green line just before that was where I noticed the last fan stopped working before shutting everything down.
Anyway, I now have a functional fileserver (knock on wood), with a 3 TB RAID-5 array (or 2.72 TB if you want to nitpick, damn drive manufacturers), as well as many other external drives connected to the server, making a total of 5.75 TB of storage accessible from that box alone.
One lesson that really hit home for me in all of this is that RAID-5 is not a backup solution. I already knew this on an intellectual level, but not a practical one. Every time one of my drives in the old array failed, it was a major upheaval and I was terrified of losing my family photos, home videos, or music. Sure, I had some of this backed up, but I didn't have a consistent backup solution, nor enough space to back everything up. And there's also the problem of what happens if your boot drive (which can't be part of the array) fails, rendering the computer unusable. You can transplant a software array like mine into a new computer, but it's a major hassle.
That's changed now. That separate 1TB drive is now my dedicated backup drive, and though it can't back up the entire contents of my array, it can handle all my family photos and home movies for the foreseeable future. I installed some relatively simple free backup software and back up my photos, home movies, and other important documents (including Jackassery) on a weekly basis to the external drive. It lets me sleep easier at night.